Reprinted without permission from Rolling Stone, May
SOUNDGARDEN: DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
* * * (five stars maximum)
We expect brash moves from Soundgarden. What their music lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in big, bold strokes: sturdy, inventive riffs; solid, forceful beats; serious, downcast lyrics; singer Chris Cornell's expertly controlled wail; and the intimidating length of the band's albums. Like its predecessor Superunknown (1994), Down On The Upside is a sprawling attempt, with 16 songs in 66 minutes. But where Superunknown confronted Soundgarden's perennial identity crisis by expanding the musical attack into pop and psychedelic rock, the band's fifth album head straight for the jugular, eschewing innovation for the simpler payoff of justing rocking out.
From a less ambitious band, Down On The Upside would be a grand display of technical prowess, showcasing rhythmic shifts, interlocking guitar lines and firm control of dynamics. But ambition is what has always made Soundgarden stand out. Innovators of the Seattle scene, they are the band most responsible for rewriting the heavy-metal handbook to exclude glam and get down to serious business. While there are plenty of genuinely enjoyable moments throughout the album, their cumulative effect is undercut by the strict adherence to hard-rock form. In the best hard rock, aggression isn't defined just by the ferocity of the drumming or the singer's screaming; it's in the vision that unites the band. Merely re-creating what you do best - no matter how well you execute it - just ain't as exciting.
Mostly, Soundgarden play hard and brood a lot. Hard rock has always had a penchant for dismal types, disaffected youth who see no chance for redemption. It's what puts the "heavy" in heavy metal. Clearly, Soundgarden identify. At its core, the band's official summer anthem of 1994, "Black Hole Sun," had all the joy of a severe sunburn, despite the glistening lead guitar and killer hooks. But catchy choruses are tricky in the unsmiling world of hard rock. "Ty Cobb," on of Down On The Upside's more contagious numbers, rips along at a healthy pace before setting in for the mantra "hardheaded fuck you all," lest anyone think the band is selling out.
The outlook remains bleak throughout. "Zero Chance," one of the album's several slower tunes, includes the catch phrase "Born without a friend/And bound to die alone." "Tighter and Tighter" sports a Robin Tower "Bridge of Sighs" riff as well as this observation: "Remember everything is just black/Or burning syn." In a similar vein but far more successful is "Blow Up the Outside World," on which a tremoloed guitar ushers in the mood and Cornell softly purs, "Nothing seems to kill me/No matter how hard I try," before exploding in cathartic rage for the chorus: "Burrow down in and/Blow up the outside world." It's one of the album's undisputedly great moments.
The weirder tunes include "No Attention," a classic keep-out-of-my face anthem that comes on like Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic" or "Rats in the Cellar," and "Switch Opens," which features and REM-style melody and guitar akin to more recent Aerosmith fare. Then there's "Applebite," a cool noir interlude with drummer Matt Cameron on Moog synthesizer and co-producer Adam Kasper on piano and barely audible vocals.
The rest of the album is standard fare. Chalk up a few points since Soundgarden don't rip off their sound from the many interchangeable bands in MTV's Buzz Clips. But even with all four members writing, the best the band comes up with is the same ol' metal machine music. Soundgarden represent a changing of the guard: The band comes from and underground stoked by its hatred for the limited perspective of the hair-metal bands of the '80s. Now clearly in the mainstream, the group has the opportunity to expand its music beyond the usual rhythms and attitudes that have already been established. It's a shame that Soundgarden don't live up to the challenge.